What the Atlantic learned from Scientology: native advertising is harder for news brands

You have to feel for the Atlantic. One poor decision has made it a case study in how not to embrace a popular advertising trend — even though many other publications could have gotten away with the same ad.

At an ad industry event in New York on Wednesday, an Atlantic Digital executive explained what the company had learned from a January debacle involving the Church of Scientology. (In case you missed it, the Atlantic pushed the boundaries of so-called “native advertising” by publishing a feel-good “sponsored story” about the religion — or cult, if you prefer — that included only positive reader comments.)

“The biggest mistake in retrospect was that it wasn’t harmonious to our site and it didn’t bring any value to our readers,” said VP and General Manager Kimberly Lau, at the event, which was hosted by native ad shop Sharethrough. “The second mistake was allowing the marketing team to moderate comments in a way that wasn’t transparent.”

Lau’s comments echo the Atlantic’s earlier apologies for the incident which, by all appearances, was a one-off mistake. But her remarks stand out because of where she made them: on a panel with representatives from Gawker, Vice and College Humor — three publications that regularly mix advertising into their editorial process and that expressed sympathy for the Atlantic’s predicament.

“There’s no other way to make money without doing this kind of advertising,” said Vice’s CCO Eddy Moretti, who added that Vice would have run the Scientology story. Meanwhile, Jason Del of Gawker (“a full-service content, event and video shop”) suggested that part of the blowback to the Scientology story came about because the sponsored format was novel to its readers.

So is all this unfair to the Atlantic —  so-called native advertising is a lifeline for publishers, why can’t it cash in like everyone else? The problem, as Lau explained, is:

“It goes back to the difference between entertainment and journalism,” she said. “There’s a higher bar for a brand like the Atlantic.”

This goes to the crux of the matter — sites that cater to comedy, entertainment or celebrity news can inject sponsored fare into their streams with relative safety. Serious news and intellectual publications, however, must take extra care to preserve the integrity of their editorial content.

In the bigger picture, this extra scrutiny of news brands may limit their ability to garner new online income. But the good news, for the Atlantic at least, is that the company has been profitable for several years and, according to Lau, 59 percent of its overall advertising revenue is digital.

Speaking of native advertising, be sure to attend paidContent Live this April where Andrew Sullivan and other leading media figures will discuss their business strategies, including native advertising.

(Image by Phuriphat via Shutterstock)